Incentives and how the environment affect human behaviour

Can we radically change the attitude of a whole community by simply giving an incentive which rewards it?

A "Kudos" candy box.
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently gotten back into Heroes of Newerth (AKA HoN) and as it always happens when my interest is focused on something particular, I’m getting a lot of ideas for improvements. And one of the things that seriously needs improvement in HoN is the community behaviour. You see, at the moment HoN has rightly conquered the top of the food chain of games with the most shitty community, even bypassing the champions like Halo and Call of Duty with just how much abuse you get to hear in every game from your own team. To give you an idea of how bad it looks, there’s practically no thread in reddit’s /r/gaming (a community of 300k people) about HoN, which doesn’t have at least 1/3 of the people mentioning how bad the community is and how one should keep away from it for this reason. In the official fora, you get “the community is bad” posts almost daily. I was posting about this stuff 2 years ago and things are just as bad now as they were then.

The reason why the community is so bad is practically because of the rules of the game and the kind of mentality it breeds. As one of the community managers explained:

Fact of the matter is, every game in HoN is fought tooth and nail, and most of the time it is simply economically efficient to just try and carry a bad team yourself than it is to try and coach them while playing. HoN is a very fast paced game and ‘playing two heroes at once’ is no easy feat, especially when most of the time when you coach people in-game they wont improve anyways, and will sometimes even get mad at you for trying to help them.

Which is fairly accurate even though I could mention a lot of other stuff that adds to the problem (such as stat tracking). This is fact is a prime example of how the environment of a situation, breeds a certain kind of behaviour from the people in it. In this case, unfortunately it’s complete intolerance of even the slightest failing and rampart elitism. It’s pretty bad in-game but it also heavily spills out in other areas such as the fora or in reddit, making the whole experience require a very thick skin to say the least.

However recently with the 2.0 update, a new exciting feature has been added and that is a form of currency called “goblin coins” and a store where you can redeem those for some aesthetic purchases (new skins, models, avatars, that sort of thing). Now this is the first form of actual incentive the game has that is not directly tied to winning games or achieving some particular task within the game. The fact that the goblin coins are abstracted from gameplay (even though they’re normally awarded because of it) means that they can also be awarded for other reasons, and as the person who pushed for them notes, it allows the HoN devs to use them as an incentive for so much more.

Given correct implementation, goblin coins have the capacity to finally provide an incentive for people in the HoN community to stop being dickwads in or outside the game. It will once again modify the environment so as to mold the human behaviour within it.It is a good first step, but it could be so much more.

Talking with the community manager today, the idea came to me that while goblin coins can be used as an incentive to improve the community attitudes, they are still primarily tied either to winning games (therefore still giving an incentive to be an asshole in-game, if it [appears to] provide a competitive advantage at winning games) , or with IRL currency. These two dilute the effectiveness of using goblin coins as an incentive for any other purpose since it fairly easy for someone to continue being a dick as they can make up for it by simply winning more games, or by just being richer than others in real life.

In fact, this little fact of market economies IRL is one of the main reasons why rich people can afford to be bigger assholes than everyone else since it all comes down to money and we have tied so much of human accomplishment and wellbeing to how wealthy one is. Of course this is not the whole picture but I digress anyway.

This means that it would be far more effective if there was a particular incentive for good behaviour which could not be bypassed by other means and the idea came to me of just how much more effective a secondary currency would be that not only was not tied to the skills of one in-game, or the money they have IRL, but that the only possible way to receive it was by good behaviour in game. Lets call this new currency “Kudos” as a tribute to the Algebraist 🙂

So how could this Kudos economy affect the community? Lets take a theoretical setup. We assume that one can only receive Kudos from other people, you can give Kudos to someone after a match by clicking on their name, or you could give Kudos to someone in the fora for making a good and thoughtful post. There is no other way to receive Kudos. In other words, one cannot buy them with real life money as this would defeat part of the purpose, allowing trolls and dickwads to achieve rewards for good behaviour while not having any.

Now lets also assume that Kudos can only be used in a special shop which sells distinct rewards from the Goblin shop. At the moment, HoN’s goblin shop sells alternative skills and models, avatars and icons and even different announcers voices. Now imagine that the Kudos shop sold stuff that not only you could not find in the Goblin shop, but that complemented any purchases you did from the Goblin shop. For example, while one could buy new models via Goblin coins, you could only buy new skins or accessories via the Kudos shop, so someone who wants to completely “pimp out” their favourite hero, needs not only to be a good player, but also a good player. This can be expanded further with one selling custom avatars, while the other sold custom titles. Stuff like that.

The end result would be a distinct incentive that pushes people to try and be well liked by other players enough to receive Kudos which they can then exchange for something only such people can have. It is not the best incentive one can have since it’s still all based on some sort of an “e-peen contest” in the end, but we are in an imperfect system so we have to do the best we can within it. What this system would achieve is that people would still be trying to fulfil their ego with shiny digital toys, but the actions they use to do that would have a positive effect rather than a negative. This would then create a cascading effect of making the community more welcome to new player and therefore more successful, subconsciously conditioning players to use and expect good behaviour and ultimately for them to abhor and punish bad behaviour.

All this, by simply modifying the environment slightly so that the incentives push for a different behaviour. This is a similar idea as expressed by Human iteration, with the difference is that this is actually feasible in the very short term and we can then actually empirically observe the results in the microcosm of a gaming community. I believe that from an memetic perspective this makes a lot of sense and will be a very exciting experiment to see.

Unfortunately, I doubt S2 (the publishers of HoN) would go through the effort of implementing anything so drastic but one never knows. There is certainly a lot of pressure on them to improve the community behaviour and perhaps the constant and loud outcry on this subject will make them bold enough to try.